Public inquiries and the silence of a decent interval

English: French undercover law enforcement veh...

English: French undercover law enforcement vehicle, photographed in Monaco Nederlands: Anoniem dienstvoertuig van de Franse overheid, gefotografeerd in Monaco (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Silence is the ultimate weapon of power –Charles de Gaulle

In the UK today, there are many different public inquiries under way. Some have only finished recently while others are still to report. A full list of inquiries, inquests and royal commissions are found at this link.[1] The three most high profile reviews are the Daniel Morgan Independent Panel, which is looking at the police corruption and Daniel Morgan’s murder, the Goddard Inquiry, which is the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, and the Pitchford Inquiry, which is the Independent Public Inquiry into Under Cover Policing.

The reviews are an important part of the UK justice system, yet they reveal the way justice is either denied or rendered nugatory. Reviews only occur after a long struggle where other methods have failed to deliver a just outcome. As the cases are already several years old, it is harder to hold individuals to account. The organisation assures the public and the inquiry that lessons have been learned and things have changed. In the end of many reviews, no one is held to account. However, the public review process has a deeper problem: the decent interval. The decent interval refers to a phrase, often ascribed to Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger that describes their endgame strategy in Vietnam. They wanted a decent interval between America’s withdrawal from South Vietnam and its defeat. In this way, South Vietnam’s eventual collapse would not appear to be America’s fault and Nixon would avoid or reduce any political criticisms for it. In terms of public inquiries, the same principle would appear to exist. The public inquiries demonstrate this in two related ways. First, a decent interval passes before the inquiry takes place. Second, the reviews take several years to complete, so the organisation can clean house. However, the Pitchford Inquiry faces the problem of the decent interval differently in three particular ways.

The decent interval and the death of due process

First, the decent interval means the normal due process is unable to deliver justice. The government and the organisation are unable to resolve the issue. The due process failure provides a decent interval. The organisation can prepare for it. As the review usually occurs after extensive legal or political struggles, the issues are already known. At the same time, the review can be scheduled at time convenient for the organisation. To be sure, this is the nature of politics. The delay and timing show the organisation power over the individual. The disparity is reinforced by the political regime. The laws and procedures encourage and sustain the disparity.[2] The Pitchford Review is about events that happened nearly 10 years ago and relate to undercover operations dating back to 1968.

If you delay something long enough, the complainant will die.

Second, the decent interval allows the review to extend to the point it is no longer viable. All organisations rely on the same bureaucratic technique. They grind down the applicant by a variety of techniques. The most widely used is delays. All complaints have a half-life. After a month, most people give up. After 3 months, 90% of the remaining group have given up. Within a year, 99% of those have given up. With an investigation, most people will give up at the first response. They try to get on with their lives. They resign themselves to the outcome and try to find something positive from the negative experience.[3] Although the idea of a complaint half-life is simply an illustration of the problem, it does occur in other areas. Consider the way the Cabinet Office delays FOIA requests with impunity.[4] In some cases, the public inquiry is needed because the delay in resolving the original issue satisfactorily. Police reviews in particular, seem to either peter out into recriminations and allegations or they simply act as a pause before the cycle of scandal and reform starts again.[5] The Daniel Morgan case exemplifies this issue. The family have suffered through five investigations, two failed trials, and a review of the investigations.[6] They have waited over 28 years and still no justice. Even though the police have admitted that corruption thwarted the investigation, neither the family nor the Crown is near the end.

The decent interval and public reviews as public entertainment

The reviews start to become a bureaucratic game that is played within the Crown for the public’s benefit. On the surface, it is almost funny. The various parties are like characters in the Thick of It or Game of Thrones. Unlike the television show, the victims and their loved ones are left without justice. Everyone congratulates themselves about the performance and the overall “satisfaction” encouraged by the politicians and the press helps to dampen and quiet the voices of those left dissatisfied. They are told they “expected too much”, this is “the best result they could obtain” given the constraints, and “there are other priorities”. When the next scandal emerges, the cycle starts again for the next family and the next victim. They are placed under surveillance as the Police and the Crown need to do reputation damage control. They will believe the victims just want money. At some point, someone has to realize that if you actually police with integrity, especially at the senior officer level, they would need less reputation damage control.

A decent interval gives you time to organize your affairs

The decent interval means the underlying policing reality remains unchanged. In part because the decent interval is a way to allow the “bad apples” to leave quietly, resign, or be transferred to other work or be fired. Once they are removed, the organisation can congratulate itself on having “cleaned up” so that it can say that it has done something. Yet, nothing really changes as the culture does not change. Operation Alice (Plebgate) revealed the practices or culture within the police.[7] The organisation has yet to confront its organisational culture. Where it does create the necessity for change, it is usually used for ulterior motives. The Daniel Morgan review and the Pitchford Review will both allow the police to remove officers and change some practices that they could not change without such necessity. However, that shows organisational culture’s weakness, as they cannot reform themselves. Alternatively, they can defer or delay the action plan the review requires. The review found X but we are going to ignore it or do Y as that is what we really want to do and it is just like X except easier for us as we have already done it.

Technology does more than most undercover officers ever could.

Third, the decent interval refers to the topic of undercover policing. Technology has reduced the need for undercover police if it has not rendered them impossible to employ[8]. If we consider how much information the police can obtain through overt means or by technologically aided observations[9], we see how little there is that cannot be done.[10] By the time the review is completed, the technology will have moved on even further.[11] With technology the police can find more about a group and its participants than most undercover officers can. As soon as the police know your name, they can find your car registration; they can track you through CCTV with facial recognition and track your telephone through GPS systems. None of these requires a warrant. They can and are done as a matter of course. They can also map your known associates through similar records to map your network in real time if necessary.

Undercover policing is a small part of a wider culture that is indifferent to citizens

If you drive on a motorway, for example, your registration details are logged and your movements, and as long as you remain on the ANPR system your whereabouts are known. If you move off the motorway system, then your phone can be tracked and traced. Even without a warrant, many online systems allow you to track and trace a person. A small amount of subterfuge could easily obtain access to those systems. The review comes at a time when undercover police are less likely to be used and if they are used, it is in a different way than what the review will consider.[12] Here the decent interval helps the police. In effect, the review is looking at knife crime even as the threat is gun crime. The review will ask the wrong questions to know what is happening now or what is planned, but will be asking the right questions for the past.

Through listening devices and remote sensors, the police can track and trace conversations.[13] They can use direct surveillance and passive surveillance to keep track of the groups that might be a public order threat.[14] At the same time, they can use informants within the groups. With the technological revolution, the police would mainly need an undercover officer in the group if they wanted to shape its behaviour directly. At that point, they stop being about policing and they start being about politics. If an undercover police officer encourages a group to act illegally, then they have stopped being a police officer and they have become a political actor. In a worst-case scenario, they have become an agent provocateur. At what point do they stop being a law enforcement body and become a secret police agency designed to disrupt, punish, and eliminate political opponents? Does such behaviour require political activists to take on counter measures that force them to appear as “extremists”? In other words, does a moderate have to become a radical simply to remain a moderate when the regime has become increasingly, albeit secretly, oppressive and repressive?[15]

The decent interval will only remind us what has not changed

The Pitchford Review will serve its purpose. In three years’ time, or whenever it reports, we will hear about the “lessons learned” and the “missed opportunities”. The Police will promise to learn lessons and ensure it does not happen again as the “rogue officers” have left the force. Even as it reports on the historical incidents, the digital surveillance capabilities make it meaningless[16]. For the government, they will have their headlines and the report becomes the official story, the official history.[17] However, the fundamental relationship between the individual and the state remains unresolved. To the extent it is resolved, the balance rests overwhelmingly with the state and individual has limited ability for oversight or control. What will remain unchanged is that the Crown will continue to use the Police to enforce order and undermine political opponents. The police’s political activity will continue. Their behaviour reminds us that the Crown rests on coercion and not consent. The method it uses betrays its illegitimacy as it can only control its political opponents by intimidation, coercion, blackmail[18] and subterfuge. It does not exist by consent and it remains in place by coercion. The decent interval will serve its purpose. The Crown and the Police remain unreformed and invulnerable to challenge and the Pitchford Inquiry will not change it.


[2] Consider the proposal to charge individuals to lodge an appeal to the First Tier Tribunal.

[3]We can see this at work with freedom of information requests. There, the public authority has 20 working days to respond from the day after the request is received. If the public authority refuses the request as vexatious on day 20, the applicant has to appeal. The appeal could take any where from 20-40 days, some organisations like the Home Office, automatically state the internal review will take 40 days. IF the review finds the exemption was incorrect, they can then provide other exemptions to the information. The process starts again and it is another 60 days before a response is made. Even then, if the public authority refuses at the internal review stage, the applicant has to appeal to the Information Commissioner’s Office. The process can stretch to 6 months or more from the time of the first request to the case getting to the ICO where there is usually a final response. The organisation could insist on its refusal, even at the ICO stage, and that would require a further hearing before the Upper Tier Tribunal. In time, it could be a year from the time of the first request before the applicant can expect a response to the first request. If the applicant were to make a subsequent request, after being refused initially as vexatious (even if the refusal is not upheld) they can be declared vexatious for having demonstrated a persistent pattern of behaviour.

[4] See Martin Rosenbaum’s experience with the Cabinet Office BBC article

[5] See Tim Newburn Literature review Police integrity and corruption




[9] If we consider how easily the police were able to locate and track Michael McIntyre, it raises questions of what else they are tracking in the name of “policing priorities” The behaviour wou appear to contravene the surveillance code of practice.

[10] The police, using FLIR (Forward Looking Infrared) which does not require a warrant or RIPA to use, was able to identify a flat that was “glowing” with heat that suggested it was growing drugs.   To be sure people can take counter measures, yet they are already on the defensive. See also operation.

[11] We only need to consider that the technology to see through walls, without worrying about heat signatures already exists and is in use. The UK police are already receiving advertisements for drones with the capacity to see through walls. See for example

The Metropolitan Police Service and the government are funding research in to this technology.

[12] The terms of reference do not look at the current use or the future planned use of under cover police. The review will provide recommendations on how undercover policing should be used, but that is not the same as looking at its current and future use as well as its capabilities.

[13] Listening devices have become smaller and everyday objects are now designed with listening devices inside. Even the need for physical surveillance is reduced so that even if groups wanted to be secure, as this article suggests,, their efforts have to be so intense, consistent, and persistent, that only very few could sustain it.

[14] What is left unresolved is who determines when a political group becomes a public order threat. Is this a political decision or a police decision? Is the criteria mainly guided by the threat or use of force? Or is it guided by other factors that might undermine the regime? For example, a professor who teaches that republics are good and monarchies are bad might be consider a threat to the regime. Would they be targeted as a possible public order threat? The issue is not idle nor is it speculative. We have to remember that Socrates was killed as he threatened the Athenian regime and many of his students or followers were tyrants, became tyrants, or otherwise presented additional threats to the regime in a more immediate way than Socrates.

[15] Consider this publicly available manual for counter surveillance systems, techniques, and practices.

[16] As mentioned above, the technological ability to put individuals under surveillance, without the need for judicial or legal oversight expands. Consider the current research on t-wave or millimetre wave imagining.

[17] We need to recall the power of the official story is that it is broadcast widely and shapes the public opinion about the topic. The Hillsborough tragedy is the paradigm of the flawed “official story”. The police and press colluded to lie about the event and spent the next 30 years fighting vociferously to resist any attempt to question, challenge, or change the official story. The shameful, dishonourable, and immoral behaviour by the press, police, and politicians is the required context for the Pitchford review as it captures the political and organisational ethos that informs the decision to create the undercover unit.

[18] The term blackmail is not used lightly. The former chief whip admitted to blackmail as the work they did to extract MPs from difficulty, such as a scandal involving “little boys” would be used later when they wanted to control the person for life. The control would exist not just for the term in office, it exists for life.

“Michael Cockrell’s ‘Westminster’s Secret Service’ featured an interview with Tim Fortescue who was a senior Whip, in the Heath administration 1971-1973 – and so almost a decade before the period of greatest relevance to our review. He was prepared to say in an interview broadcast on national television:

“For anyone with any sense, who was in trouble, would come to the whips and tell them the truth, and say now, I’m in a jam, can you help? It might be debt, it might be… a scandal involving small boys, or any kind of scandal in which, erm er, a member seemed likely to be mixed up in, they’d come and ask if we could help and if we could, we did. And we would do everything we can because we would store up brownie points… and if I mean, that sounds a pretty, pretty nasty reason, but it’s one of the reasons because if we could get a chap out of trouble then, he will do as we ask forever more.” [Emphasis added] (Paragraph 10)

About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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3 Responses to Public inquiries and the silence of a decent interval

  1. Wirral In It Together says:

    Reblogged this on Wirral In It Together and commented:
    Sound observations and a wealth of useful links …

  2. Alan M Dransfield says:

    Just goes to show the UK Justice System is in meltdown.

Comments are closed.